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Flowers In Purgatory: Gardens in Unlikely Places

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It's not surprising that Tony Perez enjoys his time in the garden. “It’s wonderful … to watch it grow from nothing to something ... ,” said Perez. “It allows you to get your mind thinking about what’s next in life.”

It is surprising where the garden is located -- in the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Utah, where Perez is an inmate.

What used to be a guard dog training area in the prison, is now an oasis of shade tarps, vegetables, fruit trees and vines. It's all part of the inmate management program at Purgatory. With the help of inmates and volunteers, Sergeant Tim Wiegert spent two weeks tilling the soil and preparing the area. Donations from local sources included plants, irrigation, fertilizer, shade covers, concrete, and guidance from the state university.

The program teaches inmates responsibility and skills. Three inmates, including Perez, were initially assigned to the garden crew. Others have chipped in and expressed interest in joining the regular group, and Perez has already been offered a job at a local nursery.

Plans for the Fall include growing pumpkins to donate to local elementary schools for carving and decoration, an idea that came from one of the inmates. "I'm very impressed to see the inmates get involved," said Wiegert.

The prison facility in Utah is not the only one to implement such a program. As far back as World War I, gardens have been documented in prisoner of war camps, such as the P.O.W. camp at Ruhleben, Germany, where British prisoners formed their own gardening club and were accepted into Britain's Royal Horticultural Society.

Gardening and floral programs have found their way into numerous correctional institutions across the U.S., meeting with surprising success. Not only do the programs brighten up the atmosphere and provide inmates with productive work, but they often help cut food costs by producing vegetables or generate additional revenue through local sales, in some cases through a florist shop collaborating with or operated by the institution.

Today, at the state corrections facility in Elmore County Alabama, inmates are cultivating a new garden behind prison walls. They plan to send the flowers they grow to local nursing homes and services for the elderly. "I've never really started something and carried it all the way through," said William Kizziah, one of several inmates who works in the garden. Thanks to a local ministry known as the Order of St. Dismas, another garden has already sprouted up at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, and a third is being planned for Alabama's nearby Staton Correctional Facility.

In Ohio, the Mansfield Correctional Institution's horticultural program helps inmates grow plants and foliage for the beautification of the institution and surrounding community. The prison, local schools, and Ohio State Patrol Grounds are all decorated with the results.

In Massachusetts, nine hot houses and a farm are operated by the Barnstable County Jail, where inmates grow and sell some 40,000 annuals each year. The program was developed 12 years ago to teach flower growing and business basics. The farm grows vegetables, trees and hay. Food grown on the farm is used for inmates or donated to food pantries. According to the Barnstable Patriot, "Any profit from the sale of products is plowed into the programs for the inmates, such as hiring additional drug and alcohol counselors, buying computers and paying for educational programs."

Illinois has an especially well developed program. Since 1994, Illinois inmates have helped cultivate more than 230 flowerbeds and 300 other floral baskets and containers at the Illinois Fairgrounds. "Such programs not only benefit our communities and help inmates return to society but also serve as a valuable asset to the taxpayer," says IDOC Director Roger E. Walker Jr.

With the help of local volunteers, horticultural experts, and civic support, green prison programs are making a difference for inmates and communities. According to Sgt. Wiegert, "We want to show people what we are doing and how they can benefit." Flowers and plants brighten up our everyday lives, and in some cases they give life a whole new meaning.

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